Former U.K. Children’s Laureate Anthony Browne probes childhood experiences with remarkable nuance and complexity. In his latest book, “What If…?” (Candlewick, Aug.), a boy named Joe worries about a birthday party he’s been invited to (“What if there are a lot of people there?...What if they play scary games?”), and his fears are made manifest in a series of surreal scenes played out in the windows he and his mother pass as they search for the right house. Browne spoke with PW from his home in Kent about childhood worries, fixing mistakes, and knowing that a book has gone down the wrong path.
A friend told me about a young boy she knows who was given a copy of What If...? He’s fallen in love with it. It was the first time he realized that there are other children who feel the way he does. He takes the book with him everywhere – it’s like a talisman.
Oh, that’s great to hear. I’ve said this elsewhere, but I think I make the books I would have liked to read as a child. I worried about things, I worried about birthday parties and so on, and my son did, too, was when he came to that age. Some parties even now give me a feeling of anxiety. I don’t think it’s just a child thing.
You’ve written books about childhood fears before in books like Silly Billy. Is there anything new you did with What If…? Something you hadn’t tried before?
That’s a good question... I’m not sure, really. I have used two contrasting styles on facing pages before, in Piggybook and in Zoo. I went more to an extreme with this one, where the everyday life sections on the left look like a comic strip and the faces of Joe and his mother and their expressions are drawn very roughly, while the pictures that he sees through the windows are extremely realistic.
How long ago did you actually write it?
It came out in Britain in 2013, so it’s not too far off. There are lots of things I’d wish I’d done over again. Not the story so much, but visually. And the American – translation, I guess you’d say – makes several changes. I think I prefer the American one.
What did they do, aside from changing “Mum” to “Mom”?
Well, when Joe and his mother finally find the house, the British edition says something like, “Joe saw the door open slowly.” But that’s not really what the artwork shows. Somehow I didn’t notice it, and neither did my editor. The American edition just says, “The door opened slowly.”
I watched an interview with you and your editor [Denise Johnstone-Burt] in which you said you’d been twitted by an art teacher for using a little brush. Are you still using a very small brush?
No, I use a little brush only for really small details. Over the years I’ve started to use a much larger brush. I read an interview with [British illustrator] Nicola Bayley; she does these very, very detailed pictures, pictures made up of dots, almost pointillist. She said that she used a big, very good brush that formed a very good point. I’ve sort of gone more toward that. A little brush is too constricting. It’s a bit like not wanting my preparatory drawing to work everything out before I transfer it into watercolor.
That’s interesting. Graphic novel artists seem to do illustration in clear stages – first they do the rough layout, then the inking, then the coloring.
I don’t think I’d like that. I really don’t. I can see why people do it. I never thought about it. To have everything and then neatly filling it all in like that….
So you’re painting the image all at once – sort of as if you’re building it.
Yes, I suppose so. I did What If…? in gouache – that’s even more like building. I’d imagined that it would produce very flat surfaces, as it did when I used it back when I was a graphic designer. But gouache can be used almost like oil paint – you can build it up. With watercolor, you think, “Oh, that’s more or less what I was looking for, I’ll leave it at that.” But you can use gouache to cover up the mistakes. At the end [of What If…?], on the mother’s head, the hair was stiff and it looked too neat. I painted over it and made it look rougher and more natural. It gives the work a kind of solidity, I think. At least the beginning of a feeling of solidity. I was surprised.
When I see the book printed, though, I don’t get that triumphant feeling that I do when I’ve just finished a picture. All I can see are the things that didn’t turn out. I go straight to those mistakes. It takes years to see it as if for the first time.
There’s this expression, “the fog of war,” which is meant to convey how confusing the battlefield is and how individual soldiers fighting have absolutely no idea what’s going on. It’s only afterward that they can tell what actually happened. What you’re describing sounds sort of like the fog of creation.
You’re absolutely right. I like that.
I know you drew a lot from a very young age. I read a blog entry by the illustrator Erin Stead in which she said, “I do not completely understand why I can draw.” Do you feel that way?
Everyone can draw when they’re five. Most of us lose the ability. “I can’t draw a straight line with a ruler,” someone said to me yesterday. Or people say, “My child can’t draw.” I don’t believe that. After a certain age, children are discouraged from drawing.
But you weren’t discouraged from drawing. You drew all the time.
Well, I was encouraged by my parents. I was allowed to. I was never told, ‘You can’t do this.’ I was kind of a lucky boy, really. A lot of my characters are underdogs or sad or lonely, but I had a comfortable, golden sort of childhood. Although, there’s one thing, I was just thinking about this the other night – summer evenings used to depress me. We were sent to bed early, much earlier than other children. It was still light outside, and we could hear the other children playing. My parents must have thought there was a good reason to do it, but we hated it. And we had to wear short trousers until we were 15. They must have thought it was healthier, or that it would make our childhood last longer.
Are your books published pretty much as they receive them, or do you go through a process of working with the editor on successive versions?
I’ve done both, and I much prefer the collaborative process. I like to have an editor who’s involved, making suggestions, going back and forth. That’s how it should be. Sometimes I’ve had editors who haven’t made any suggestions. It tends to happen to older, established writers, I think. If the editors are younger, they worry about challenging the older writer.
Can you think of a time when an editor changed the way you saw a book you were doing?
Oh, yes. I had made a dummy for Piggybook – this was when I was working with Julia MacRae [publisher of Julia MacRae Books, now retired]. She was excellent. She had edited my very first book, and I grew up with her. She looked at it, she accepted it, I got a contract, I started doing the pictures. But something was wrong. I could tell. It wasn’t from her saying something. It was just her response. There was a scale of encouragement and enthusiasm, and her reaction was low on the scale.
I thought about it. I put it away in a drawer, and I got on with the next book. Months later, nearly a year out, I took it out of the drawer, and I realized that it was too dark. The males in the book transformed into realistic pigs. It was too grotesque. It was rather didactic and moralistic. It needed some lightness and some humor.
Do you have any books sitting in a drawer like that right now?
Well, there’s a book about Frida Kahlo I want to do that I can’t get right. And I’m stuck right at the moment, as a matter of fact. I broke my little finger running. I was in Denmark. I had to have pins put in it. They’ve taken them out, but it’s surprising how necessary having a little finger is to holding a pencil. So the book I was working on is put away for now.
What If…? Anthony Browne. Candlewick, 16.99 Aug. ISBN 978-0-7636-7419-9